BEEF EMPIRE DAYS: Volunteers continue to keep Beef Empire Days going strong

5/29/2014

By SCOTT AUST

By SCOTT AUST

saust@gctelegram.com

Rick Hibler was still in high school when he volunteered to help out at the first Beef Empire Days.

He's been a volunteer every year since.

"It means something special to me. Back 45 years ago, that was a pretty big deal in Garden City. I was in vo-ag class, and we helped build the pens and stuff," he said. "Over the years, it's meant something special."

The 46th annual Beef Empire Days, a 10-day celebration of the beef industry, begins Friday and runs through June 8. It includes a variety of industry-related events, entertainment, competitions, food and sporting events.

Deann Gillen-Lehman, Beef Empire Days executive director, said the event couldn't go on without dedicated volunteers like Hibler working behind the scenes. Many of those volunteers come back every year, she said, doing everything from taking tickets to running individual events and keeping things organized.

Gillen-Lehman paused and shrugged her shoulders when asked how many volunteers take part in Beef Empire Days. Hundreds, she would guess.

"The parade alone takes 40 people," she said.

Hibler, who has been working in the feedlot industry since 1971, including the last 19 years at Beefland Feedyard - Irsik and Doll, works the live show, bringing cattle up for the live judging. For him, that's the best part of Beef Empire Days.

"The best part still is the live judging contest because I'm into the animals," he said.

Beef Empire Days officials work hard to make improvements each year while maintaining the focus on the beef industry.

"We're just building this year on what we have," Gillen-Lehman said. "Like the first weekend with the backyard barbecue and our band, our ranch rodeo and ranch horse competition, we're building that weekend. We want to make it bigger and better each year, with more things to do on the first weekend."

The first weekend includes a Friday night concert at the Finney County Fairgrounds featuring the rock band, "Hairball," at 9 p.m., followed on Saturday by a huge roundup of food events, sports, music, a ranch horse competition anchored by the 7 p.m. Ranch Rodeo at the fairgrounds, followed by a concert at 9 p.m. featuring "Born in the Barn" on the grandstand plaza.

There's some concern this year that the scheduling of the state high school track meet a week later than it's been in the past might provide a challenge for Beef Empire Days attendance the first weekend.

But Gillen-Lehman isn't letting it put a damper on things. The goal is to keep improving the event each year.

"We do a little tweaking, a little adjustment," she said. "I think people like the fun, having something to do."

But in addition to entertainment, Gillen-Lehman said, an important part of Beef Empire Days is educating the public and consumers about the beef industry and promoting the industry.

"That's our life. It's not just in the feed yards, it's your equipment sales, your farming, your grains. Multiple things keep it alive," she said. "There's a lot of dedication and how passionate you are about it. The beef industry has been a passion of mine since I was a young girl."

In the future, she would love to bring in a celebrity chef or food critic, someone like Guy Fieri, or the Pioneer Woman who could do food demonstrations or talk about cooking and recipes.

For those in the industry, events like the live show or the cattle working contest provide friendly competition and bragging rights.

"They enjoy competing with each other. You talk to feedlot managers, and it's all about the prestige of winning an event like that," she said.

Matt Jones, president of the Beef Empire Days board of directors, said one thing he's looking forward to again this year is the backyard barbecue, the second year for the contest.

The barbecue is part of Saturday's Battle of the Beef BBQ Challenge sponsored by Tyson Fresh Meats. Participants compete for cash prizes judged on how well they cook three selections of meat provided: ribs, brisket and tri-tip. Check-in for participants is 4 p.m. Friday, with a mandatory cook's meeting at 7 p.m. Judging begins at 1 p.m. Saturday. Backyard grilling warriors will be judged on appearance, taste and tenderness of their cuts.

"It's a really neat concept," Jones said. "It gives us a little different aspect, a little twist on things."

Jones believes events like the barbecue challenge can attract the interest of people who may not be interested in some of the more traditional Beef Empire Days events like the live show or carcass show.

"This will be the second year for it. It was pretty successful last year, and I think it's a program we can really build on for the future," he said.

Generally, the event will draw people from the industry, but it's also important to have other things going on that the general public will enjoy.

"Beef Empire Days is about educating the public about the beef industry, and so you need programs you can add to it that will entice more people to come. The more interested in it, the better," he said.

While not surprised at the community tradition and success Beef Empire Days has had locally and in the surrounding area, Jones said the organization has set its sights on generating more statewide interest.

"It's a good thing for our region, but if we can pull interest from other parts of the state, and Texas, Nebraska, Missouri, other areas, I think that would be great," he said.

To assist with that goal, the board has been working closely with the Finney County Convention and Visitors Bureau on marketing efforts for the past two events, and it seems to be paying off.

"That's helped expand the people we're reaching. I think that's a great partnership, and I hope we can continue to grow that partnership," Jones said.

Kim Inderlied, CVB executive director, said the CVB board of directors decided last year to increase efforts to assist Beef Empire Days in its marketing of the event, due to its status as one of the community's signature events.

Roxanne Morgan, assistant CVB director, said the CVB worked with Gillen-Lehman on beefing up advertising and offering advice and connections with other tourism related organizations in the state.

Beef Empire Days did more targeted advertising in radio, print and online. Morgan said Beef Empire Days has been sponsoring giveaways through its Facebook page, and on May 21 recorded 15,000 hits.

"We've also done email blasts and hit about 50,000 people," Morgan said. "We've had above national average ratings on those, as far as driving people to the website."

Inderlied said the economic impact of last year's Beef Empire Days amounted to $700,000 for the community. Determining economic impact is based on a formula that takes into account overnight hotel stays, day trips and local attendance.

Inderlied said CVB uses more conservative figures than the state does to come up with impact numbers. For every overnight guest, the state uses $254, while the CVB uses $160 per guest. A day traveler, someone who comes to town for the event and then goes home, is estimated to spend about $60 while here, not only at the event but at local gas stations, restaurants and retail shops.

"The town is full during Beef Empire Days," Inderlied said.

Gillen-Lehman said both weekends have some great entertainment.

"We want people to come out and have a good time," she said. "It's a week full of a little bit of everything for everybody."

She added that they hope to continue to grow even more in the future.

Jones agreed.

"It's a big part of what we do out in this part of the state. It's been around for 40-plus years. Hopefully, we can keep it around for another 40-plus," he said.

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